ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - A measure to legalize same-sex marriage in Maryland puts more emphasis on protecting religious freedom than a bill that failed last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday after hosting a breakfast with supporters at the governor's residence.
O'Malley, a Democrat who is making same-sex marriage a priority of his legislative agenda this year, said bill drafters were especially sensitive to protecting religious freedom in hopes of persuading lawmakers - as well as the state's voters - to support the legislation. It's widely believed opponents would be able to petition any bill that passes to the ballot for voters to decide in November.
O'Malley said he believes the Maryland legislation is more specific on the point of protecting religious freedom than any of the six other states that have legalized same-sex marriage so far.
"We have done our very best in the drafting of this bill to make very, very, very explicit the protections of religious liberty as well as the protection of rights equally under the law, and it's my hope that that will not only allow more support in the House of Delegates but, as importantly, I hope it will allow more people throughout our state to be able to support this bill," O'Malley said. "One does not have to be an advocate for same-sex marriage in order to support equal rights under the law."
This year's legislation spells out that religious groups have exclusive control over their own theological doctrine, policy teachings and beliefs. The bill also makes it clear that there is a difference between civil marriage and religious marriage. Religious groups and their leaders won't be required to conduct marriage ceremonies or include same-sex couples in their marriage-related programs. They also won't be subject to a lawsuit or punishment by the state for declining to do so.
The debate is set to be one of the more contentious in Maryland's 90-day legislative session. A bill passed the Senate last year, but it stalled in the House of Delegates amid intense opposition from a coalition that included Catholic groups and black churches. The state has a significant Catholic population.
Opponents are already mobilizing for the next round of the fight.
"We're organized," said Delegate Emmett Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat who is a black pastor and opponent of gay marriage. "We were not last year. We are this year."
The Maryland Catholic Conference also spoke out against the new measure.
"The bill's limited exemptions for religious organizations remain ambiguous and by no means cover the host of circumstances that would create a conflict between the government and faith institutions if marriage is redefined," Mary Ellen Russell, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
O'Malley, a Catholic who supported the bill last year but did not highlight it as part of his legislative agenda, submitted legislation to the General Assembly Monday night.
The governor has emphasized the importance of passing the legislation so that children raised by same-sex couples are equally protected under the law.
"We also believe that we can protect religious freedom and rights equally under the law," O'Malley said. "Other states have found a way to do this. We can find a way to do this too, and that common ground that allows us to move forward is dignity, the human dignity of every single person."
Burns, however, said there is no way any legislation can adequately protect religious freedom when it comes to same-sex marriage.
"There is no way you can protect me from death; I'm going to die," Burns said. "You can't protect the religious community from same-sex marriage ... They don't have the knowledge to do that. They're not in our churches. They don't know what our doctrines are."
O'Malley hosted a breakfast with same-sex marriage supporters, clergy and lawmakers who support the bill.
The Rev. Starlene Joyner Burns, founder of SJB Ministries in Bowie, said she felt comfortable the bill recognizes that religious freedom must be protected.
"The tide is turning here in Maryland and throughout the country," she said.
O'Brian Banner, a 28-year-old business analyst who attended the breakfast with his partner Daryl Fields, said they attended to express that the issue is important to them.
"Being able to be married would be paramount to both of us, because we would like to be able to create our version of the American dream, which is to be able to be married, to be able to purchase a home and within three years be able to adopt children, a little girl and a little boy," Banner said.
Delegate Neil Parrott, a Washington County Republican who opposes the bill, said he will be focused on stopping the legislation. Parrott helped lead a successful petition drive last year that put on the ballot legislation allowing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants under certain circumstances at Maryland colleges, said he would be prepared to lead another petition drive, if necessary.
"I anticipate it's going to stop here on the floor," Parrott said during an interview in the House of Delegates. "I am going to be active this year. If any bills go through that go against what I believe a majority of Marylanders want, and goes against Maryland families, we're going to petition those bills."